Five Reasons to See The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Ever since elementary school, I've been obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I was entranced by the adventures of the arrogant yet brilliant detective, and it is a fascination that has never gone away. I still reread Arthur Conan Doyle's stories from time to time and I was downright giddy when I visited the Holmes museum in London, located at -- where else? -- Baker Street. And then, of course, there are the myriad film and TV adaptations, some of which delight me and many of which never fail to irritate me in some way or another because they inevitably get too wrapped up in the iconography or they try to make the characters into something they are not.
My hesitation about Holmes adaptations, however, was never the reason why I didn't seek out Billy Wilder's 1970 flick The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. My reluctance there stemmed from believing everything I read, which told me that the film was far from one of Wilder's best and that it was a stodgy, bloated mess. Seeing as how Wilder is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, I didn't see the point in depressing myself by watching a film that didn't meet the near-perfect standard I expected from him. But then, just this last February, I decided to give The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes a chance... and soon realized I had been an idiot.
While certainly not an iconic classic like Some Like It Hot or Sunset Boulevard, the movie is a lovely blending of Doyle and Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond), and, to my shock, features one of the best portrayals of the detective I've seen yet. So, if you're like me and hesitant to give this movie a shot, here are my five reasons why you should take the plunge.
One of the things I find most annoying about a Holmes adaptation is the inevitable inclusion of Irene Adler. Look, I get it -- it has to be difficult to resist including the remarkable, highly intelligent woman who was one of the few people to ever outwit Holmes. But there are plenty of other stories and characters to draw material from, especially when you have to be aware that so many others have gone down the Irene Adler path. (Ditto for Professor Moriarty.) It just feels like a lack of imagination after a while.
Thankfully, Wilder and Diamond substitute Irene with the new character of Gabrielle Valledon, a Belgian woman who arrives at 221B one night in a daze after being attacked by the people who, she assumes, have kidnapped her engineer husband. Without giving too much away, Gabrielle is slowly revealed to be a strong match for Holmes and she provides the film with its poignant, beautifully bittersweet ending. Actress Genevieve Page is marvelous in the role, going well beyond being just a pretty face.
Holmes and Watson are perfectly cast
It should come as no surprise to know that I always have my doubts when someone is cast as Holmes and Watson. In regards to The Private Life..., I was particularly weary because I had no clue who Robert Stephens or Colin Blakely were (and I kind of still don't).
As Watson, Blakely is similar to Nigel Bruce but not quite as buffoonish. Personally, I prefer Watson to be a bit smarter -- how else could Sherlock put up with him? -- so seeing him portrayed as a fool bores me to tears. Blakely's fine depiction retains some of the character's bluster and enthusiasm, while also giving him a dash of goofiness and a clear love for his friend, as evidenced by the way he tries to curb Sherlock's cocaine habit throughout the film. It isn't my favorite Watson by a long shot, but that is more the script's fault than Blakely's.
Robert Stephens, on the other hand, gives a performance I adore. It is exactly what I want from a Sherlock portrayal and I couldn't be happier with it.
Another perfectly cast person in this film is the one and only Sir Christopher Lee as Sherlock's brother, Mycroft. Before The Private Life..., Lee had played Holmes himself twice, as well as Sir Henry Baskerville opposite Peter Cushing's divine Holmes in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles. When I started Wilder's film and saw Lee's name in the credits, it was like an instant dose of serotonin. If nothing else, I thought, I'll have a good time watching him.
And indeed I did! Wearing a bald cap and adopting a stuffy, holier-than-thou demeanor, Lee is a great Mycroft. The brother of Sherlock isn't supposed to be a showy role, but if anybody can make a meal out of a small part, it's Christopher Lee. I mean, there is a two-second moment where he takes off his monocle just by moving his face and it is oddly riveting. If you have the Kino Lorber edition (which I recommend!), there is a nice featurette of an interview with Lee, who talks about making the film and calls Wilder the greatest director he ever worked with.
Despite being set in the 19th century, there is something about The Private Life... that feels undeniably like the early '70s. Still, the production design is gorgeous in an understated way and the overall look of the film is rather lovely. There are some unexpected moments with shadows that are quite splendid and the location shooting in Scotland towards the end is often breathtaking. Plus, Wilder honestly directs the hell out of it. I can only imagine how beautiful this would look on the big screen.
It's a Wilder film!
Really, what more do you need than that? While not laugh-out-loud funny like, say, The Major and the Minor, this movie thrives on Wilder and Diamond's trademark wit. I'm also impressed that the two writers decided to construct their own intriguing mystery rather than adapt one of Arthur Conan Doyle's; the final outcome of their mystery is a touch disappointing to me, I'll admit, but it is still fun and often keeps you guessing until the very end.
The bottom line is this: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not quite a Billy Wilder masterpiece, but it is, without a doubt, a terrific film that deserves a far better reputation than it seems to have.
This is my contribution to the Christopher Lee Blogathon, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. Check out the other tributes to the wonderful Mr. Lee here.